Why Are Jews Liberals?

Why Are Jews Liberals?

by Norman Podhoretz

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From the bestselling author of World War IV, a brilliant investigation of a central question in American politics and culture.

During his career as a neoconservative thinker, Norman Podhoretz has been asked no question more often than “Why are so many Jews liberals?” In this provocative book he sets out to solve this puzzle. He first offers a fascinating account of anti-Semitism in the West to show the historical roots of Jewish mistrust of the right. But, Podhoretz argues, since the Six Day War of 1967 Jewish allegiance to the left no longer makes sense, and yet most Jews continue supporting the Democratic Party and the liberal agenda. Reviewing the history of Jewish political attitudes and examining the available evidence, Podhoretz argues against the conventional explanations for Jewish liberalism—finally proposing his own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385532129
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/08/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 1,116,431
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Norman Podhoretz, who was the editor in chief of Commentary for thirty-five years, is the author of numerous bestselling books, including Making It, Breaking Ranks, Ex-Friends, My Love Affair with America, The Prophets, and World War IV. He holds the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Read an Excerpt


The reason the story of how the Jews became liberals is so long is that it begins very far back--all the way back to the birth of Christianity out of the womb of Judaism about two thousand years ago. The earliest Christians (not yet known by that name) were a dissident sect within Judaism. They did not, to begin with, see themselves as belonging to a new religion: they were, rather, Jews who continued observing the laws of Judaism but who differed from most of their fellow Jews in their belief that the Messiah (or the "Christ") had come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It was only with the conversion of Saint Paul some thirty-five years after the crucifixion of Jesus that the break with Judaism was initiated.
Paul (ne Saul) was himself a Jew ("I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin"), and he sometimes denied that God had now rejected the people He had formerly chosen ("They are beloved for the sake of their forefathers"). But he interpreted the coming of Jesus as signifying, and indeed requiring, the abrogation of The old Law given by God at Mount Sinai to His chosen people, the Jews, and under which they had always lived ("But now," he tells his fellow Jews, "we are delivered from the law").
In the years following Paul's death, a great debate broke out over the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, with the radical theologian Marcion (ca. 85-160) holding that the Hebrew Bible, the Bible of the Jews, the "Old Testament," was not the word of God but the work of the Devil and must therefore be entirely shunned and repudiated. But this idea was declared heretical, and it was Paul's view--namely, that the "Old Testament" had been valid up until the coming of Jesus and remained valid as the prelude to, and the prophetic foreteller of, a "New Testament"--that ultimately prevailed. It followed that the Jews, having refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah sent to them by God for their deliverance from death, had now been superseded as His chosen people by the Christian community (or Church).
But if the Jews were no longer the chosen people, what were they then? Paul asked: "Hath God cast away His people?" and to his own question he answered, "God forbid. . . . God hath not cast away His people which He foreknew."4 Yet there were also passages in the Letters of Paul that could, and would, be taken as a warrant for regarding those who continued to live by the Law of Judaism as "carnally minded" rather than "spiritually minded," and that this made them enemies of God ("because the carnal mind is enmity against God").
Ominous as this idea was, however, what proved to be even worse for the Jews was the charge made against them in other parts of the New Testament, especially the Gospels of Matthew and John. For there are passages in these books that hold the Jewish people responsible for the crucifixion of the son of God--and not only the Jews living at the time of Jesus's sojourn on earth, but even their descendants unto all the generations that followed ("Then answered all the people and said, His blood be on us, and on our children"). Hence the Jewish people as a whole are condemned as the spawn of the Devil ("Ye are of your father the Devil and your will is to do your father's desire").
In a fascinating speculative comment on the ambivalence of the New Testament's conception of the Jews, R. J. Zwi Werblowski, who was for many years the Martin Buber Professor of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, writes:
Had the Jews disappeared from the stage of history, it would have been possible [for Christianity] to relate to them more positively as a preparatory phase in the coming of God's kingdom. Had the Church severed its ties to its Israelite antecedents and completely rejected the "Old Testament" and the "Jewish God" (as demanded by Marcion) . . . , then Christianity would have been a hostile but essentially separate religion. The Church, however, insistently maintained that it was the direct continuation of that divine action in history of which the election of Israel was a major part. Yet the Jews continued to exist.
Because the Jews refused to disappear, what started as ambivalence developed into outright hostility. Marcion may have been excommunicated and his doctrine declared a heresy, but with a little help from the accusations I have just cited from the Gospels of Matthew and John, a version of the Marcionite heresy smuggled its way into the writing and preaching of other early Fathers of the Church like Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom.  The eminent historian Cecil Roth warns against exaggerating how bad conditions were for the Jews in the "Dark Ages," and we do well to take his caution into account. Nevertheless it is beyond dispute that much mob violence against the Jews was triggered in the coming centuries--and, as we shall see, not only in the medieval world--by the anti-Jewish ideas scattered throughout the New Testament, and spread far and wide by the sermons of prelates and priests. There is nothing surprising about this. What may, however, seem surprising, at least at first sight, is how long it took for the image of the Jew as a "Christ-killer" and as the "_anti-Christ" to trickle down into the popular mind. As late as the fourth century C.E., John Chrysostom complained that Christians who knew no better were living on an equal footing with their Jewish neighbors, who, true to the Pauline characterization of them as "carnally minded," were marked by extravagance, gluttony, and dissolute living, and who, true to the Gospel accounts of their role in the crucifixion of Jesus, were guilty of deicide.
Evidently this vexatious problem of good relations between ordinary Christians and Jews refused to go away, so that it was still eliciting complaints from princes of the Church at the time of Charlemagne (ninth century). "Things have reached a stage," declared Agobard, the Archbishop of Lyon,
where ignorant Christians claim that the Jews preach better than our priests. . . . Some Christians even celebrate the Sabbath with the Jews and violate the holy repose of Sunday. . . . Men of the people, peasants, allow themselves to be plunged into such a sea of errors that they regard the Jews as the only people of God, and consider that they combine the observance of a pure religion and a truer faith than ours.
But what may seem even more surprising than these friendly relations between Jews and Christians in the early Middle Ages is the reversal of roles between "men of the people" and the princes of the Church that later took place. For there came a time when Jews were often protected from mob violence by the very Catholic authorities whose ideas were the source of it. During the First Crusade (1095-96), when there were horrible massacres in France and Germany of Jewish communities unlucky enough to be living in the path of the Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land, the Bishop of Speyer and the Archbishop of Cologne both used force to stop the killings. The Bishop of Speyer even went so far as to hang the ringleaders. The Archbishop of Mainz also tried to intervene, but he failed and narrowly escaped being slaughtered himself. Then, in the twelfth century, the Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux, though he himself had been instrumental in launching the Second Crusade, helped to head off a new wave of massacres by warning that they would bring Divine retribution.
I can well imagine that these courageous men--and courageous they certainly were--thought they were acting as good Christians. But if so, it was not necessarily in the spirit of Christian love. (Even Bernard, the best of them from the Jewish point of view, referred to Jews with such epithets as "venomous," "coarse," and "wicked.")12 For around the end of the fourth century, no less an authority than Saint Augustine, the greatest of all the early Christian theologians, had promulgated the doctrine that it was the will of God for the Jews to be dispersed and kept in a state of abject misery. He further decreed, however--and it was out of obedience to this codicil that princes of the Church like the Bishop of Speyer sometimes protected Jews from murderous assaults--that they were not to be killed and that they must also be permitted to practice their religion. In this way the wretched condition they had brought upon themselves by rejecting and crucifying Jesus, and continuing to reject him, would serve as a "witness" to the truth of Christianity.
In a similar vein, the greatest Christian theologian of the High Middle Ages, Saint Thomas Aquinas, declared in the thirteenth century that
in consequence of their sin Jews were destined to perpetual servitude . . . save for the sole proviso that [sovereigns] do not deprive them of all that is necessary to sustain life.
Adding his own, more detailed, exposition of the same point, Pope Innocent III declared in 1205:
The Lord made Cain a wanderer and a fugitive over the earth, but set a mark on him, . . . lest any finding him should slay him. Thus the Jews, against whom the blood of Jesus Christ calls out, although they ought not to be killed, lest the Christian people forget the Divine Law, yet as wanderers ought they to remain upon the earth, until their countenance be filled with shame and they seek the name of Jesus Christ, the Lord. That is why blasphemers of the Christian name ought . . . to be forced into the servitude of which they made themselves deserving when they raised sacrilegious hands against Him Who had come to confer true liberty upon them, thus calling down His blood upon themselves and upon their children.
In addition to mandating a degree of physical protection against murderous attacks, the "witness" doctrine sometimes compelled efforts by the ecclesiastical authorities to deny the false charges that often triggered such attacks. Thus, Innocent III's successor, Innocent IV, wrote in 1247 that
Christians charge falsely . . . that [the Jews] hold a communion rite . . . with the heart of a murdered child; and should the cadaver of a dead man happen to be found anywhere they maliciously lay it to [the Jews'] charge.
What the pope was referring to here was the notorious blood libel that had been in circulation since 1144, when the Jews of Norwich were accused by the local authorities of having  brought a Christian child before Easter and tortured him with all the tortures wherewith our Lord was tortured, and on Long Friday hanged him on a rood in hatred of our Lord.
Another form the blood libel took was the allegation that the reason Christian children were kidnapped and slaughtered every year around Easter was that their blood was a necessary ingredient of the unleavened bread (matzah) that Jews ate on Passover. But this was far from the only reason Jews were imagined to need Christian blood. A bizarre list of the others was compiled in 1494 by the citizens of a town who believed that they were in imminent danger of becoming the next victims of Jewish ritual murder:
Firstly, they [the Jews] were convinced by the judgment of their ancestors, that the blood of a Christian was a good remedy for the alleviation of the wound of circumcision. Secondly, they were of opinion that this blood, put into food, is efficacious for the awakening of mutual love. Thirdly, they had discovered, as men and women among them suffered equally from menstruation, that the blood of a Christian is a specific medicine for it, when drunk. Fourthly, they had an ancient but secret ordinance by which they are under obligation to shed Christian blood in honor of God, in daily sacrifices, in some spot or other.
Obviously Pope Innocent IV's condemnation of the blood libel had failed to prevent its perpetuation--and the gruesome massacres to which it led--in the two hundred years since he had issued it.
Another of the main medieval libels against the Jews was the accusation that they had caused the Black Death of 1348-50 by poisoning wells all over Europe "so as to kill and destroy the whole of Christianity." Confessions obtained through torture yielded an account according to which a Jew of Savoy had spread the plague on the instructions of a rabbi who said to him:
See, I give you a little package, half a span in size, which contains a preparation of poison and venom in a narrow, stitched leathern bag. This you are to distribute among the wells, the cisterns, and the springs about Venice and the other places where you go, in order to poison the people who drink the water. 

For this crime, declared an indictment issued in 1348 by an ecclesiastical tribunal, "all Jews from the age of seven" were to be held responsible, since "all of them in their totality were cognizant and are guilty of the above actions."
Accordingly, about three hundred Jewish communities--extending from Spain to France, Germany, and _Poland-_Lithuania--were set upon and their inhabitants tortured and killed or expelled. In response to what he himself called this "horrible thing," Pope Clement VI issued a papal bull stating that certain Christians, seduced by that liar, the devil, are imputing the pestilence to poisoning by Jews._._._._[Yet] since this pestilence is all but universal everywhere, and by a mysterious decree of God has afflicted, and continues to afflict, both Jews and many other nations throughout the diverse regions of the earth to whom a common existence with Jews is unknown, [the charge] that the Jews have provided the cause or the occasion for such a crime is without plausibility. Nevertheless, Clement VI's bull, like Innocent IV's efforts against the blood libel a century earlier, did not spell the end of the massacres or halt the monstrous lie that had caused them.
A third medieval libel against which a pope protested to indifferent effect was the Desecration of the Host. This was the accusation frequently made that Jews would steal or buy the wafers representing the body of Christ in the Mass so as to crucify him again by sticking pins into his transubstantiated flesh. In 1338, Pope Benedict XII, disturbed by certain reports he had heard, ordered the bishop of a town in Austria to protect the Jews there against what he considered false charges. But both before and after Benedict issued his order, thousands of equally innocent Jews were burned at the stake in many other cities, usually on the basis of confessions extorted by torture or the testimony of witnesses bent for one reason or another on the killing of Jews.
The murders committed under the influence of these phantasmagoric libels were by no means the sole instances in which the prohibition against murdering Jews was honored in the breach, nor were the sole perpetrators unlettered peasants who had no idea that they were doing anything wrong. There were also plenty of clerics who either turned a blind eye or even instigated persecutions themselves. This was especially the case with the Dominican and Franciscan orders--yes, even the Franciscans whose patron saint preached love to all creatures, including the animals. But to the Franciscan friars of the later Middle Ages, while Christian love may have extended to the animals, it did not apply to the Jews. "In respect of abstract and general love," decreed Friar Bernardino of Siena, "we are permitted to love them [the Jews]. However, there can be no concrete love toward them."22 In line with this view, massacres were provoked on more than one occasion by the preaching of Franciscan agitators like John of Capistrano ("the scourge of the Jews"), sometimes in collaboration with Dominicans of like mind.
A different species of massacre was perpetrated by the most notorious of the Dominican enemies of the Jews, the Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada. In 1492, all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled from Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Among those who did convert were some--the conversos or Marranos--who continued practicing their religion in secret. An Inquisition was set up to root them out, and in due course Torquemada became the head of it. By the time he was through, many thousands of conversos (not all of them guilty of secretly remaining Jews) were burned at the stake.

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